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College Football's No-Pay System Gets a Penalty Flag

In recent months, it has become clear that a number of a prominent college football programs, including Miami and Ohio State, have rampantly violated NCAA rules. Ostensibly instituted to maintain the “amateur” nature of NCAA football, these rules keep players from accepting cash, gifts, and almost any other compensation in connection with playing college football. 

A recent report from the National College Players Association (NCPA) provides a far more reasonable interpretation of the NCAA’s “self-serving” rules, which allow universities to make millions of dollars as a part of an archaic, hypocritical, immoral, and exploitative system that makes coaches and administrators millionaires while leaving players living at or below the federal poverty line. The report concludes that top-tier college football players are worth an average of $121,048, a figure that far exceeds the value of existing scholarship compensation even without considering the endorsement income that players could earn.

The NCAA should abandon the fiction that college football is an amateur game, and allow colleges to freely negotiate compensation packages with players. 

As it is, NCAA rules, in conjunction with the NFL’s rules and virtual monopoly status, combine to deny players within three years of high school the right to use their football skills to earn fairly negotiated compensation. Most Americans are free to seek opportunities to use their skill sets to earn money regardless of what that skill set is, and it is a moral outrage that the current system keeps college football players from using their skill sets in the same way. College football players deserve the chance to make a living too.

Defenders of the NCAA’s current system claim that college football’s unique amateurism is a charming value that should be protected — a defense that is either disingenuous or ignorant. Colleges abandoned amateurism years ago by offering scholarship compensation to attract players. 

Others, notably South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, have proposed identical cash payments to each player. While this would be a marginal improvement, it does not make sense to equally compensate players that have different values, both to the team’s play and to the bottom line. Indeed, colleges have already embraced differing levels of compensation for different players. Since tuition costs vary widely, the actual value of scholarship compensation varies between schools. Colleges even compensate players on the same team differently with a mix of full and partial scholarship players, as well as non-scholarship “walk-on” players.

The truth is that the NCAA is not against compensation, or even against compensating players at different levels; they are only against compensation that they cannot dictate to players. Though the NCAA’s rules are arbitrary, they justify them as virtuous protectors of their fictitious “amateur” system that enriches them and leaves their undercompensated athletes in poverty. Despite devoting an in-season average of 43.3 hours per week to their multi-billion dollar industry, 85% of top-tier college football players’ scholarship compensation, the only compensation the NCAA permits, leaves them living below the federal poverty line. NCAA rules actively lead to “the suppression of wages of an unnamed labor force artfully referred to as ‘student athletes.’” 

Calling this exploitation may seem a bit strong; after all, no one is forced to play college football, and there is nothing wrong with colleges turning on profit on football. But the NFL has rules excluding players who are less than three years removed from high school, and there is no financially viable American professional football alternative to the NFL. Players who hope to play in NFL in the future have no practical way to be fairly compensated according to the market demand for their talent, which is very high

The system is immoral and exploitative because, for all intents and purposes, it is impossible to become an NFL player without surrendering the fruits of between one and three of one’s most productive, marketable years. The player collects not what his contribution is worth, but what the NCAA allows him to collect — a scholarship that “underestimates [his] contributions to a multi-billion dollar industry” and leaves him living in poverty. 

Football players should not need to “pay their dues” in this way. Though no one has a right to be an NFL player, having the freedom to utilize one’s own skill set at a freely and mutually-agreed upon level of compensation is one of the bedrocks of American society. Many college football players have a skill set that is worth much more than the value of the scholarship compensation they receive, and there is no good reason to keep them from freely negotiating their compensation and pursuing other business and endorsement opportunities. The NCAA should adopt a fairer, market-based system of mutually beneficial compensation for football players, and should be ashamed of exploiting and impoverishing the young men who are their partners.

Photo Credit: Ed Yourdon

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